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What's the Difference Between Flotsam and Jetsam?

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Along with serving as the names of two villainous eels in Disney's animated classic The Little Mermaid, the phrase “flotsam and jetsam” is often used to describe the floating debris found in the aftermath of an accident at sea. And while it might initially seem like a strange moniker for maritime wreckage, there's a very good reason for the two-part terminology.

According to maritime law, “jetsam” is the term for anything that is cast overboard or otherwise jettisoned from a distressed ship intentionally, either to lighten the cargo load or as some other reaction to a problem the vessel has encountered. The term can be used to describe anything that finds its way off the ship in this fashion and is discovered floating in the water or washed ashore.

“Flotsam,” on the other hand, is defined as the debris that is unintentionally left behind after a shipwreck, which can include portions of the ship itself, as well as cargo or other items that float to the surface after a ship sinks. (For example, that splintered panel of ornately carved wood that Rose is floating on at the end of Titanic would be considered flotsam—but that certainly didn't help poor Jack.)

Maritime law distinguishes flotsam from jetsam by the presence of intent to remove material from the ship: Basically, if it ended up in the water on purpose, it's jetsam. Everything else floating around the site of the incident is flotsam. This is an important distinction, as some countries have very particular guidelines for how each type of debris should be handled—and who takes ownership of it—that are determined by the category of debris. Laws in the UK once dictated that recovered jetsam be returned to the owner of the vessel, while flotsam became the property of the government.

However, it's worth noting that both of these terms only apply to debris that's floating in the water. Anything that sinks to the bottom of the ocean falls under a new set of terms: “lagan” and “derelict.” And just like with flotsam and jetsam, the difference between the terms depends on how the material got there. Cargo that is left behind intentionally—usually with a buoy attached—in order to be recovered at a later point is called “lagan,” while anything that sinks to the bottom of the ocean without any plans for recovery is described as “derelict.”

Today, all four categories of debris—flotsam, jetsam, lagan, and derelict—are generally grouped together in most countries' maritime laws. However, according to the United Kingdom's Merchant Shipping Act of 1995, flotsam, jetsam, and lagan remain the property of their original owners when discovered by rescuers or salvage agents, but derelict falls under an entirely different and comprehensive set of regulations.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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